During the years of the Great Depression, a marvel of civil engineering comprising a dam, tunnel, power station and plant, was erected in the hills of West Virginia. For years, Union Carbide boasted “that the Hawk’s Nest hydroelectric plant could illuminate the entire city of Charleston.”
Yet the untold story of this monumental achievement is the cost in human lives: By conservative estimates, more than 750 workers, mostly migrants and mostly blacks, died from acute silicosis, an occupational, inhalant-induced lung disease, in the construction of the great three-mile-long Hawk’s Nest Tunnel.
The number of deaths caused by silicosis may well have been higher, Martin Cherniack posits: Workers would have been evicted from the camps when they were no longer able to work. Cherniack, a physician and former researcher at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, has reconstructed this epidemiological tragedy of 50 years past from courthouse archives of the lives, deaths, grievances and physicians’ reports as well as from interviews with those who worked in the tunnel.
Despite such handicaps as physicians’ misdiagnoses of the condition and Union Carbide’s crucial deletions of documents “related to work on the tunnel, allegations of silicosis, or the hundreds of legal actions that were brought on behalf of former workers,” Cherniack has worthily retrieved from historical oblivion a major disaster in the history of industrial health.